Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Ninja Theory
Game played on: PC
Release date: August 8, 2017
In the gaming market, truly unique experiences are rare to come by. That’s why it’s all the more important to support games that offer them. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, is one such game.
I’ll be upfront and say that this is not for everyone. Hellblade is a game that will likely bore and alienate a lot of people. It is not something that is to be played for fun. It is not a power fantasy that will make the player feel like a badass. It is a disturbing, maddening, surreal and more often than not depressing experience that emotionally drains you.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice tells the story of a mentally disturbed Celtic woman named Senua. She is dealing with severe mental illness and emotional trauma in a time when such issues are poorly understood, if at all. She journeys off to a land where she hopes to conquer her “darkness”, and bring back her loved one from the clutches of Hela, ruler of the dead.
Don’t play this game for the gameplay, because it’s truly not all that impressive. Hellblade is best described as one-third walking simulator, one-third hack and slash game, and one-third puzzle game. While none of these three elements of gameplay are bad, they aren’t fleshed out enough to be particularly notable either. Combat is very simple. You have quick and heavy attacks, as well as a button to dodge and a block button. There’s no depth or experimentation to be found here, but fights have a very slow, brutal weight to them. It’s best to keep the game on the normal side of difficulty, because anything more or less makes combat either too tedious or too easy. As for puzzles, while there are a few cleverly designed ones, most of them are pretty average and at times more frustrating than engaging. Levels are linear with no real incentive to go off the path to your next objective except if you want to hear some retellings of Norse myth. The boss battles are at least noteworthy for their spectacle and creative gimmicks, like one who uses fire or forces you to rely on sound at various points to fight it.
The real stars of this game are its story and presentation. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a well written, excellently presented, and exceptionally well acted portrayal of a person dealing with psychosis. It handles very weighty subject matter not just including mental illness, but trauma, religious zealotry, and abuse. It’s character driven, about how Senua must face her own personal demons represented as actual demons. There’s never an answer given as to whether what Senua is seeing is real or just figments of her damaged mind. It makes for a very interesting dilemma for the player. You can’t rely on Senua’s perception of events. As her quest goes on, she constantly struggles with her “darkness”. It not only manifests as the enemies you must fight, but visions and voices of her past and the people close to her. It is equal parts a well written and engaging character study, as well as an effective work of psychological horror.
There is genuinely frightening and violent imagery on display in the game. Enemy designs and depictions of the Norse deities are demonic and warped. The designs for Hela and Hel’s guardian Garmr are the most memorable. This ties into Senua’s trauma at the hands of Viking raiders, and the setting of the game. It is steeped in Norse mythology and the culture of the time.
The word, dreaded perhaps by some, “cinematic” comes into mind when playing Hellblade. Senua is motion captured and voice acted superbly by Melina Juergens. It should be noted that this is the first time she has ever done either of these things. She wasn’t even meant to be the definitive choice to portray Senua, but she did such great work that they stuck with her. Every subtle and unsubtle expression on her face, and the movement of her eyes convey so much emotion without her saying a word. And when she does speak, boy does she manage to drip sorrow and rage, often at the same time with so much effectiveness. There are other characters who are also acted very well. The voice for Senua’s father is especially noteworthy, but I won’t get into specifics so as not to spoil his role. Cutscenes are expertly directed and animated, usually done as one long tracking shot by taking advantage of the over the shoulder perspective the game uses.
Hellblade wouldn’t manage to work as well as it does without its sound design. I cannot state enough that this game needs to be played with headphones. Senua’s hallucinations are not just visual, but auditory as well. She is plagued by voices in her head that both encourage and admonish her. Playing with headphones elevates a playthrough a great deal. It immerses you into Senua’s mind, and its a treat for the ears. The game is at times a full on assault on the senses, but not in a bad way. This is also a deliberate move to place the player in Senua’s shoes. You will feel the fear she feels during some of the more intense gameplay segments, most notably a segment where Senua must find her way around an area in pitch dark relying entirely on sound.
It’s a beautiful game, with some of the best atmosphere and photorealistic environments and characters a game can have this generation. There are inspired and striking uses of color and has some of the most frightening utilization of shadow for a game in recent memory. It also has a very well done soundtrack that evokes terror, sadness, and hope in equal measure.
I had a glitch free playthrough with Hellblade, but it is not a technically flawless title. The audio would cut for a split second when the game would transition to a cutscene sometimes. I also had a moment when an enemy boxed me into a corner during combat and I was unable to move out, forcing me to take heavy damage in order to trigger an animation that would get me out of it.
One point that should be made is about a supposed permadeath mechanic. The game states after the first combat encounter that if you lose too many times, your save will be deleted and the game will start all over again. Don’t panic, it’s not what you think. To go into further detail would be spoiling the plot and subtext, but just note that there’s no need to panic if you’re dying repeatedly. You change the difficulty at any time at the pause menu if combat is getting too much of a challenge.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a game that has its rough edges, but still manages to soar despite its imperfections. I finished it in six hours, and there are no alternate endings or bonus content. One might think this is a negative, but I can’t think of the game being any better with anything like that. It tells a well paced, emotionally powerful, and thought provoking story; and that’s enough. Ninja Theory took a true risk in making this game, and they should be applauded for doing so. There are definitely people who could give this game a chance and hate it, but I still ask that you give it one. I for one found myself hooked, warts and all. It’s a daring labor of love that will stick with you, regardless of how you feel about it.